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Bessie Rayner Parkes – 1829~1925

February 16, 2012

I hate the idea of women being identified only as mothers of great people.  So a look at Bessie Rayner Parkes needs to go beyond the fact that she was mother to of Hilaire Belloc and Marie Lowndes-Belloc. By the same measure, I must also go beyond her parents’ great heritage (daughter of Joseph Parkes, a solicitor and Unitarian, and Elizabeth Priestley, eldest granddaughter of the scientist Joseph Priestle) to find out what earned Bessie a place in our history.

So according to the Literary Heritage website she established the English woman’s journal in 1958. It’s aim was the advancement of ideas on the reform of women’s education and legal rights. As is sometimes the case, sharing ideas through a journal gave rise to some tangible improvements: a women’s employment bureau, reading room, clerical school, and the Victoria Press.  She set the journal up with Barbara Leigh Smith, both were from politically active families.  They had slightly different views about the purpose of the journal: “Parkes saw the Journal as an expression of a moral crusade, to reclaim fallen prostitutes, or to promote improvement in workhouses. Bodichon wanted its offices in Langham Place to be the the London hub of practical feminist enterprises. An employment register won so overwhelming a response that it grew into the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women (still active today)” according to an article in the Independent in 1999.  Nevertheless, they were clearly close friends. One source  describes how they embarked on “an unchaparoned trip across Europe in 1850 to visit some friends who were training to be artists in Munich.” Small, but courageous steps towards giving women the freedom we enjoy (take for granted) today .  That same source contains detailed information about the circulation of this small scale monthly – reaching around 1,000 readers a month.  Rather like their defiant ‘un-chaperoned’ trip a small step, but significant in developing thinking around feminist issues of it’s day.

She was a poet of some note.  So I leave you with her call to action: “Rise, Leav’ning the masses with your energies.” from To Birmingham:

To Birmingham

Bessie Rayner Parkes

Dear smoky Birmingham, since long ago
I left your native streets, my heart and hope
Have been with those dense crowds which daily flow
Over their pavements, finding ample scope
For meditation and for thought-born plan
Of active life within the destinies
Of these my fellow-townsmen. Every man
Inherits a great memory, how was won,
Hardly, the first of many victories
Over Feudality; and a command
Insep’rably goes with it hand in hand,
That, as the father strove, should strive the son.
Therefore, brave Town, say to thy best ones, “Rise,
Leav’ning the masses with your energies.”
May every effort as the spring-dew fall
On a prepared soil, and, like the ore
On which you spend your labour, may there spring
From out your social depths a noble power
To cope with and work out each worthy thing.

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